From the time he arrived in Sri Lanka Grame Smith has given his team-mates plenty to look up to © Getty Images

It may seem harsh to the most fervent of South African supporters that the national team has started crashing down both the Test and one-day international rankings in the last couple of months - a period in which they haven't played a single match in either form of the game. But the more honest among them will recognise that the slide in form started well before the last two months and, as hard as it may be to say it, New Zealand are clearly a better one-day side (and probably Sri Lanka, too), while England's compelling Test form undeniably makes them the best-placed team to challenge Australia.

The situation is all just a little difficult to swallow for Graeme Smith and his young team but, so far, they have done an admirable job of it as they prepare for Wednesday's Test match against Sri Lanka at Galle. Apart from Lance Klusener and Nantie Hayward, who have been playing for Middlesex, it will be the players' first game - of any sort - for over three months.

It is the longest break most of the players have experienced since they were teenagers. For Jacques Kallis, now 28, it is the longest period away from cricket since he was 17. "I'm as strong and as fit as I have ever been, probably more, actually," Kallis said after running a dozen laps of the Test ground in the shadow of the famous Galle Fort on Monday. He dismisses the fact that he and most of his colleagues have come straight from a cool Cape Town winter to the searing heat and humidity of Sri Lanka. "We've been here before and we all knew what to expect," he says with an easy smile. "We've all trained hard. We're ready."

Shaun Pollock is another seasoned tourist who looks completely relaxed and at ease with himself, his surroundings and the team. But he says ruefully: "Three months off - it was amazing. I thought all the old niggles and aches and pains had healed, but after the first net session they all came straight back!"

If this was another team it would look suspiciously as if they were just a bit too relaxed, but after a dozen years on the road with the South Africans, and having experienced the passion and commitment to the cause of Smith, I am not fooled. But there is something different. Under the national badge on the team's training kit there is a small inscription, which they had done on arrival in Colombo last week. It's "no big deal", according to any of the senior players you care to ask, and the words certainly don't have the same impact on strangers as they do on the players.

At a pre-tour camp in Pretoria a fortnight ago the squad went through as much mental exercise as physical, and one task was to agree upon a tag-line that best summed up what they wanted to achieve. Motivated by senior players like Pollock, Kallis and Mark Boucher, the result was "Dare to live the Dream".

It was only supposed to be an exercise, but it spoke volumes for the mental strength required in cricket and, perhaps, the fact that other teams - Australia - have had more of it than South Africa in the past. So this team decided to have a permanent reminder of what was required very close to them as they prepared for the big game.

Now there is no talk of "surviving" against Murali on his beloved Galle pitch. There is little talk of "defence". Instead the talk is all positive. It is about dreaming of becoming the best. And of daring to live that dream. Whatever may happen in Galle I have rarely seen a more positive South African team. They really do believe they can win despite most of them having suffered what Boucher described as "a drilling" last time they were here four years ago, when Murali took 13 wickets in the match. We'll see.

Neil Manthorp is a South African cricket writer and broadcaster.